Familial Trafficking: When the Hand the Child Holds Harms Them the Most

Familial Trafficking: When the Hand the Child Holds Harms Them the Most

A hyper-awareness of child sex trafficking, by all accounts, would imply that this world has somehow become safer for children because people are speaking more openly about the pervasiveness of commercial sexual exploitation of children and child sexual abuse.

But, the sad reality is, that is not the case. As more people begin to focus on the “stranger danger” myths and kidnapping of children the less likely they are going to see how child sex trafficking can operate in reality.

Of course, anti-human trafficking organizations have designed much of their education programs around the grooming tactics of traffickers, and how they are able to recruit people and then coerce or force them into commercial sex and work. Prevention programs can be developed around children understanding personal boundaries, consent and healthy relationships that can empower children to steer clear of traffickers and invariably reduce the amount of perpetration to begin with.

But what if a child’s parent or caregiver is the trafficker? What happens then?

Familial Trafficking

In the United States, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the second leading way a person is recruited into sex trafficking is by a family member. The fourth leading way a person is recruited into labor trafficking is by family, as well.

It could be argued that the numbers or people who are trafficking by family is much higher when we factor in the likelihood that most of those victims are likely children who do not know to reach out for help. After all, when a child’s caregiver exploits them, they would have no one to really turn to.

In the study, “Familial Sex Trafficking of Minors: Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation and System Involvement,” highlights that in family-facilitated sex trafficking, 64.5 percent of the traffickers in the limited study were mothers with 32.3 percent being the fathers of the victims with a small 3.2 percent being other family members.

In the cases where the mother was the trafficker, around 65 percent had a second trafficker that was a romantic partner or acquaintance also cited as a trafficker.

According to the study “Family-Facilitated Juvenile Sex Trafficking,” when mothers were the trafficker, the purposes behind that abuse revolves around substance abuse issues, they were a madam who was already operating a brothel or the mothers were “training” their children in the ways of the life because the mothers were also being trafficked, as well.

In the same study, when fathers trafficked their children it was done through coercion for the child to have sex with men. Other family-facilitated trafficking that was done by cousins or uncles were done to make a profit, primarily.

In all the cases from the “Family-Facilitated Juvenile Sex Trafficking” study where a male family member was trafficking a child, they victim felt abandoned by their mother and the mother typically knew the circumstances of the abuse, though they were not actively protecting them.

It is very important to note that about 81 percent of the cases involved parents who accepted drugs as payment for the sale of their children for sex.

Caregivers and family members who are trafficking their children operate in similar ways in other traffickers – they use threats, coercion and their authority to keep their control.

Toni McKinley, familial sex trafficking survivor and author of “What Happened to Me?!: Healing for Sex Trafficking Survivors,” describes this mode of victimization this way, “It is an absolute betrayal that a relative is so evil to sell you for profit. Most relatives are selling girls for their drug habit. Some sell them because of poverty. And others sell them because they think it is cool to have someone like you to pass around to their friends for cash.”

Barriers for Children to Get Help

In familial sex trafficking, victimization begins at an earlier age typically. In the study “Familial Sex Trafficking of Minors: Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation, and System Involvement,” the small sample included ages 6-17 years old with the average age being close to 12 years old.

Many children don’t even have the language to describe their abuse.

At younger ages children don’t know how to disclose abuse or fully understand what is happening, which is the same challenge children who have been sexually abused face.

The challenges of child victims to disclose sexual abuse are the same challenges when we look at familial sex trafficking. Only about 38 percent of child sexual abuse victims disclose that they have been sexually abuse with the rest never disclosing it, according to Darkness 2 Light.

Their young ages also make them dependent on the family member who is abusing them.

Lack of understanding of what exploitation is

Some victims don’t know that money or something of value was being exchanged or they were tricked into believing it was an innocent arrangement or date.

Victim blaming

Victims believed it was their fault or were made to belief it was their choice.

Victim sees it as another form of punishment for bad behavior

If a child sees their abuse as a form of punishment, they won’t recognize itit is exploitation or abuse.

Under-sourced community

If the community doesn’t have the resources to respond to this or educate professionals and community members about this to improve identification, then children fall through the cracks

Immigrant status

Children who have a tenuous immigration status are less likely to come forward for help.


Service providers/social workers/Child Protective Service workers misidentify the abuse as neglect or physical abuse or sexual abuse without the layer of exploitation.

Screening tools don’t include family-facilitated trafficking

Screening tools focus on gang trafficking or pimp trafficking and leave out the indicators for familial sex trafficking.

Effects on the Children

Properly identifying exploitation within the family is imperative to getting the appropriate services to the child who suffered the abuse.

Exploitation in commercial sex results in significant psychological trauma for children.

“Children exploited in commercial sex are at a high risk of continued involvement in commercial sex in their adulthood. Prior research has found associations of CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) with posttraumatic stress disorder, complex trauma, anxiety and depression, suicidality, substance abuse, distrust of others, and social isolation,” according to “Familial Sex Trafficking of Minors: Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation and System Involvement.”

Children will also have difficulty with self-regulation, interpersonal relationships, with potential for long-term psychiatric and physical problems.

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk said it best, “When trauma emanates from within the family, children experience a crisis of loyalty and organize their behavior to survive within their families.”

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